Interview with Kasim Abid

"You Cannot Risk Your Life to Make a Film"

In 2004, the Iraqi filmmaker Kasim Abid returned to his native Iraq and started the Independent Film and Television College in Baghdad. But despite notable successes, the college had had to move to Damascus. Interview by Abdul-Ahmad Rashid

Kasim Abid (photo: Arab Film Festival Rotterdam)
An idealist caught in the Baghdad crossfire of violence – Kasim Abid

​​How did you come up with the idea of an "Independent Film and Television College"?

Kasim Abid: After the war there was a lot of discussion and talk about what we as Iraqis should do for Iraq. Having lived and studied abroad we all had experience living in the west. Some of the people said, okay, we have to wait until the situation settles down. Then we can go back.

Others said, no, if we want to do something, we must do it now because Iraq needs experts right now. So me and my colleague Maysoon Pachachi did not wait. We thought, if we manage to do something, whatever it is, if we manage to move life one centimeter forward, it will be a victory.

We did not want to sit down and talk and complain, no! I remember when somebody asked me the same question I said to him: "There is a Chinese proverb that says: Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness". We believe in this proverb.

What were the major problems you were facing in the beginning?

Abid: You need equipment and money. During the sanctions all of that had been in short supply and that put a lot of Iraqi filmmakers in a very difficult situation concerning making a living. A lot of filmmakers were working as taxi drivers or booksellers or something like that. The consequences of the sanctions were enormous. After we came back, all the equipment had been stolen or destroyed.

The first step was to set up a college and offer training for young Iraqi filmmakers, supply the necessary equipment and teach them how to build a story from reality. In the beginning, we were planning on offering six or seven courses every year. We ended up doing just one because of the security situation.

photo: Independent Film and Television College Baghdad
"Baghdad Days", by Hiba Bassem, received an award at the "Arab Film Festival" in Rotterdam, the Netherlands

​​The first course on documentaries started in October 2004, and instead of finishing it in three months, it took us twelve. To arrange one day shooting takes days, if not weeks, again because of concerns for the safety of our students. So the training for the camera work and the sound was done on the roof of buildings, among the satellite dishes and wires, not on the street.

But the result of the first course was four documentary films, and these films have been wide-screened all over the world, in the UK, the USA, in Switzerland and in Germany.

Last year we started a second course on documentary film in Baghdad. A few days before we started it, there was the explosion in Samarra at the Shia shrine and we faced a big dilemma. I did not know whether we were able to continue the project or whether we should stop it because the security situation in Baghdad had completely collapsed.

Because of the sectarian violence you were in danger of your life just because your name is Omar or Osman or Ali or Hussein. I then asked the students: "Do you want to continue or do you want to stop?" It was unbelievable, but everyone of them said: "We want to continue."

Why do you think that is?

photo: Independent Film and Television College Baghdad
For security reasons most of the seminars in Baghdad were held on the rooftop of the college

​​Abid: Most of our students came from the academy of art. They studied cinema four years but they never make a film until they came here. And we continue working with them. Hiba Bassem (director of "Baghdad Days") has now made her second film. Munaf Shaker (the director of "Umar Is My Friend") has made his second film, too. It will be shown on Al-Dschazira International in English language soon. Hiba's film, too.

How do you finance the courses? Are there student fees?

Abid: The courses are free of charge. Basically we get founding from media charity organizations, some money from educational institutions in Britain and from the Trade Union in Britain.

Does the Iraqi government support you?

Abid: From the Iraqi government we do not get a single penny. They don't support cinema. They support religious festivals. Cinema is something far away from their minds.

How much money does your institute need for a year?

Abid: We need around 50,000 to 60,000 dollars per year. But now while the college in Baghdad is not being used we still have to pay the rent. I left Baghdad last June because it was very dangerous I could not cope any more. We finished the first part of the documentary course, then I left the cameras and the rest of the equipment for the students to start shooting. I keep in touch with them through e-mail. I already saw most of the films. They send them to me to Damascus.

I did not return to Baghdad after last June because on the July 21st my brother had been kidnapped and killed, and another brother was threatened twice by religious extremists. Our family has started to dismantle.

Have you been threatened in your school?

Abid: No, because we keep a very low profile. I refused all interviews for newspapers or television. There was only one single advertisement in the beginning.

Have your students been threatened by religious groups?

Abid: We hold our courses on the top of the roof. We do not go out on the streets. But a couple of weeks ago a student of ours was filming in a café when there was a bomb attack on the street; the café collapsed. But he continued his work. Then two people approached him, took the camera and the tapes and forced him to come with them. He managed to run away, but they shot him twice. He is in the hospital now but he might loose his leg.

You have transferred your college to Damascus…

Abid: But only temporarily. Once the situation will settle down in Baghdad we will return. We are now editing five of our students' films there. We are planning to run a new documentary course in autumn, if things go well. We will bring in some students from Iraq, but there will also be another course in Damascus because currently there are over a million Iraqis in Damascus and there are a lot of young Iraqi filmmakers among them. They are waiting for us to start our next course.

Cinema can only develop where there is stability, when you are safe while working. You cannot risk your life to make a film.

Interview by Abdul-Ahmad Rashid

© Qantara.de 2007

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